Mori Sushi (Los Angeles, July 2016)

Mori Sushi
Our first visit to Mori was almost a year ago—it was our very last meal out in 2015 and it was one of the best meals we ate all that year. It was not cheap—the most we’d spent on a sushi-centered meal so far. It was, however, an excellent meal—by far the best sushi we’d ever eaten and we knew we wanted to go back on our next trip in the summer (yes, it has taken me five months to finally finish writing up all our meals from our L.A trip in the summer). We’d planned to go back for lunch and eat slightly cheaper: we’d been told on our last visit that at lunch the omakase ran about $80 and served up 15 pieces of fish; that seemed like the sweet spot between our appetites and our wallets. Alas, right before we got to L.A. Mori stopped serving lunch. I thought briefly about going somewhere else for our anniversary meal but the missus suggested that we just bite the bullet and go back to Mori and just eat one less meal of sushi elsewhere in the trip. And so we did. It was very good again but the experience fell a bit short of our first visit.

Before I get to why that was and then to our meal, which was, as I said, very good anyway, let me note the very low utility of this meal report. It comes five months after the fact, in a different season and is not going to be a good guide to what you might expect of an omakase at Mori right now. In fact, the things that detracted from our overall experience may also no longer be applicable. So, if you’re looking specifically for what you might get right now at Mori this is not for you. But hopefully it will still be enough evidence that if you want to go out for excellent sushi in Los Angeles, Mori is probably the place to go. We were happy, by the way, to see how full the restaurant was at our meal—it had been quite empty at our previous dinner and I’d read other reports too that noted this. While we were the only ones at the bar there were a number of large groups at the tables, including one large Japanese group whose sushi was being prepared exclusively by the head chef.

What were the shortcomings at this meal? Well, it has nothing to do with the quality or variety of the fish. The main difference was the confidence level of the chef serving us. At our previous dinner we were in the hands of Chef Yoshi, who was essentially entirely autonomous and also a very gregarious and warm presence. Unfortunately, Yoshi is no longer at Mori (we were told a few nights previous at our dinner at Kinjiro that he had moved to Kiriko—I’m not sure if he is still there). His replacement was a much younger chef at a very different point experience-wise. He often seemed unsure of what he should do in terms of sequence and pacing and the head chef intervened on more than one occasion to tell him what to give us next and also to tell him how to prepare particular fish. He also did not have as deft a touch with the saucing. If you compare the pictures of this meal with those from the previous you’ll see what I mean (compare, for example, the saucing of the kohada). He was also not very talkative, perhaps because his English is not quite as fluent as Yoshi’s (this would, of course, not be a problem for Japanese speakers) and many of our questions about the fish were answered by the head chef.

This actually had an unexpected positive effect on our meal in its own way. You see, we’d asked—as we do these days—that the meal not feature any bluefin tuna (more on this below). Our chef was confused by this request and when he conveyed it to the head chef he seemed put out as well and told us that we shouldn’t expect more than 19-20 pieces in our omakase. I said to our guy that he could just give us more of other things but I didn’t seem to quite get through. Anyway, as we asked questions about the first few pieces of fish we were served the head chef, who fielded most of them, began to warm up to us and then remembered that we’d been there 6 months previous (and that we’d sat with Yoshi!) and his demeanour changed. As it happens, we ended up getting a couple more pieces than we had received at our previous dinner

Here’s what we got (where not specified the fish was all Japanese):

  1. House-made tofu with seasoned soy sauce and wasabi. This was the first thing we’d been served at the previous meal as well and it was excellent again.
  2. Suzuki: The progression of fish began with a pristine piece of Japanese sea bass.
  3. Japanese scallop: Wonderful texture and clean, sweet flavour.
  4. Tasmanian sea trout: This was also excellent.
  5. Octopus: This was dressed with a light dab of Japanese plum and was quite good.
  6. Gindara: Local black cod we were told. We’d not had it as nigiri before; it had been cured with kelp and was very good.
  7. Aji: Aji/Spanish mackerel is one of our favourite fish usually but this had a slightly metallic taste and my piece had a tiny bit of a scale still attached. This was an off-note.
  8. Sakura-masu: The cherry trout that followed, however, was one of the high points of the meal.
  9. Sawara: The king mackerel was also very good.
  10. Sockeye salmon: Two pieces in a row of oily fish with a lot of the skin attached but this had a bit too much salt on it.
  11. Kisu: This Japanese smelt/whiting was also new to us and we quite liked it.
  12. Bigeye tuna: This was the bluefin replacement; it was from Hawaii and it was very good.
  13. Inada: As was the baby yellowtail.
  14. Kohada: The gizzard shad was also very good—though the presentation was marred a little bit by unsightly drops of soy sauce (yes, I’m nitpicking but at this price I’m entitled).
  15. Shiro ebi: The baby white shrimp was another highlight, the sweetness set off perfectly by a slight dab of the nikiri and some sesame seeds.
  16. Iwashi: The sardine brought us back to more cloying textures and was also very good.
  17. Kamasu: The barracuda had been lightly charred/seared to release its oils and was very good.
  18. Chutoro of bigeye tuna: It’s not bluefin chutoro but it’s pretty good.
  19. Kani: The snow crab was lovely too.
  20. Nodoguro: This fish, usually translated as blackthroat perch, has fast become one of our favourites. A white fish that is nonetheless quite oily on account of living at a greater depth. I’d forgotten to photograph one piece at our previous meal and on this occasion this was the one I popped into my mouth before remembering to pull the camera up. It was lightly charred as well.
  21. Salted cod roe: This divided us—the missus really liked it, it was a touch too salty for my liking.
  22. Ikura: The salmon roe, marinated in dashi, was pristine, however.
  23. Santa Barbara uni: As was the Santa Barbara uni, clean and briny.
  24. Japanese Uni: More intense and more iodiney, this was also excellent but I’m a savage and always prefer the Santa Barbara uni’s charms.
  25. Anago: The omakase drew to a close with the arrival of the slightly sweet saltwater eel.
  26. Tamago: And the omlette, presented only one way on this occasion, closed it out.
  27. Dessert: As at our last meal, there was a home-made tofu mousse and it was accompanied by an excellent sapote and yuzu jelly. Served with very good roasted green tea.

So, some repeats from our previous meal but also many new things. We were a little bit disappointed not to have been given any handrolls on this occasion as those had been highlights last time. But it’s not like we were disappointed with the meal we had. The service/prep issues that I noted may seem, as I said, like nitpicking but at $160/head (which is what this turned out to be—prices have gone up since last December) you are paying for a higher-tier experience which does include a finer attention to detail. That said, I don’t mean to give the impression that I am an exacting sushi connoisseur. While my ability to make distinctions develops further with every high-level meal many (most?) of the nuances are still beyond my ability to discern (the logic of the particular order of fish we were served, for example). Anyway, our next trip to Mori will be on our next trip to L.A and next time we’ll be sure to ask to be seated in front of Head Chef Maru.Though by this point the younger chef is probably completely up to speed.

Oh yes, I’d said I’d have more on the bluefin tuna issue down here. Here it is: based on the reactions that chefs at the better sushi bars in L.A have to our bluefin prohibition it seems quite clear that sushi aficionados (in Los Angeles at least) are not on board with avoiding bluefin. I’m curious about what the discourse around this is like among sushi eaters in other major cities (and also in Japan). My understanding is that bluefin tuna remains highly endangered—is this not true? I don’t mean to sound virtuous about this—after all, it’s only very recently that we’ve stopped eat it ourselves—but I’m curious about how people negotiate this issue. And do feel free to tell me if any/many of the other fish we ate are also endangered.

4 thoughts on “Mori Sushi (Los Angeles, July 2016)

  1. I also have recently begun to avoid large tunas (although not 100%). For me it is mostly a sustainability issue, and so the smaller tunas such as bonita and albacore are less of a problem for me. My stance is still in evolution.

    It seems like a bit of a paradox that the Japanese seem quite willing to eat many items into extinction, whereas they have the reputation as naturalists and animists.

    When I have stated my preferences recently, there has been some surprise and yet they had obviously had similar requests in the past. So perhaps it is gaining traction.

    ~Tad

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  2. On more than one food forum I’ve received the response, “if I don’t eat it someone else will”. The more interesting response is that in fact far more fish than simply bluefin tuna are highly endangered. The implication being that the fuss over bluefin tuna obscures the perilous state of all wild fish. I obviously don’t know enough—or anything—about wild fisheries to be able to evaluate this claim and the further suggestion that if we’re concerned about the extinction of fish we should just stop eating all wild-caught fish.

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  3. MAO, thanks for the detailed review. I went to Mori last night after being inspired by your review, and we were lucky enough to be seated in front of the head chef, Maru. The premium omakase was quite decadent, we had some special appetizers and a rich matsutake mushroom soup in addition to some sashimi and the nigiri. The quality of the fish was impeccable, and the rice as you mentioned was truly great. Highlights were the black and then also red sea perch, hairy crab, scallop, uni (both SB and Hokkaido), and the king mackerel, but all of the fish was delicious. Thanks for recommending it.

    Curious to see what you would think of this new place called Q sushi in downtown LA.

    Merry Christmas!

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  4. Very glad you enjoyed it and also very jealous.

    We’ve thought about going to Q on our last couple of trips but two things have held us back: relative expense and also reports of the head chef apparently being indifferent to all but a small subset of customers. The latter was confirmed to us by the owner of another well-known Japanese restaurant we ate at in 2016 who said that the risk there was always high that you could pay a couple of hundred per head and be treated coldly. On the other hand, on Yelp there appear to be reports of the chef being friendly. So who knows? We’ll probably go for lunch one of these trips—I believe it’s roughly $75/head for 11 pieces at lunch, which is on par with Sushi Tsujita. My understanding is that the omakase at dinner starts much higher than the base omakase at Mori.

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